The Not-So-Lazy Days of Summer: A Break in School Can Take Its Toll on Learning

School's out for summer. School's out forever.
— Alice Cooper

Rocker Alice Cooper pretty much sums up the effect that summer has on the minds of most kids: once school is out, it’s out of mind. And that’s the problem.

“When we leave children unsupervised during the summer, we miss critical opportunities to improve their academic achievement and we take away crucial supports like nutritious meals and snacks,” says Afterschool Alliance Executive Director Jodi Grant. “By not creating and funding enough summer learning programs, we are missing the chance to engage and educate millions of students during the summer, and instead are leaving them unsupervised and at risk.”

Studies dating back to 1906 find that all children score lower on standardized tests at the end of summer vacation than they do when it begins. And—according to the 1996 paper “The Effects Of Summer Vacation On Achievement Test Scores: A Narrative And Meta-Analytic Review,” most students lose about two months of grade level equivalency in math skills over the summer months. In addition, low-income students lose more than two months of reading achievement, despite the fact that their middle class peers make slight gains. As a result, low-income youth are less likely to graduate from high school or enter college.

“The long summer break is a precarious time when many low-income children fall behind academically and lose the nutritious meals, supervision, and structure that school provides,” says Ron Fairchild, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association.

But this isn’t a call for abolishing summer vacation. Children and parents alike eagerly anticipate summer; giving the entire family a break from routine. Children want to deep-dive into their interests, while parents want their children to safely learn new skills.

Summer programs can meet the needs of both parent and child, rounding out a child’s education while offering experiences that aren’t available during the school year. They also offer lower-income families a way to level the playing field with enrichment activities and learning opportunities. Summer programs have the potential to help reverse summer learning loss and increase educational equity.

One analysis of summer program evaluations—“The Effects Of A Modified School Calendar On Achievement Test Scores”—found that they measurably increased the knowledge and skills of participants. Well-designed, hands-on learning programs not only boost student achievement, but also improve self-esteem, while enhancing motivation to learn and nurture new skills and talents.

The America After 3PM Special Report on Summer, sponsored by The Wallace Foundation, finds that safe, structured summer learning programs are serving a significant portion of our nation’s children. That said, even more children are not reaping the benefits of these valuable programs.

According to the report, three quarters of America’s schoolchildren are not participating in summer learning programs. Despite a growing awareness that summer learning loss is a major contributor to the achievement gap between low-income and high-income youth, the number and percentage of children participating in summer enrichment programs is startlingly low. In fact, each summer in America, an estimated 43 million children in the U.S. miss out on expanded learning opportunities.

“If we are to overcome the achievement gap, we must find ways to increase opportunities for high-quality summer learning and encourage more children to participate in them,” says Nancy Devine, director of communities at The Wallace Foundation.

Sure, many of those 43 million children might be enjoying a trip to the beach or camping in a national park, yet too many others are left without the enriching activities that they need to keep learning and growing in the summer months. And it’s a terrible shame. Studies such as “The Learning Season: The Untapped Power Of Summer To Advance Student Achievement” show that non-academic experiences during the summer can support success during the school year, including higher grades and test scores, not to mention expanded horizons.

Summer programs can reduce summer learning losses and even lead to achievement gains, with effects lasting up to two years. And, once more, summer programs can approach subjects in a way that schools can’t. Math doesn’t feel like math when you’re counting how many times you can shimmy a hula-hoop around your waist in a minute. And science doesn’t feel like science if you’re mixing ingredients to make disgustingly fascinating goop. 

Good summer programs provide: opportunities for literacy and math development; activities that promote critical thinking; exposure to new ideas or concepts; time to socialize with peers; opportunities to make connections to their culture; opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge of new ideas; opportunities to safely exercise autonomy; a chance to be physical outside in a positive way; and ways to creatively express themselves.

Afterschool Special

Afterschool programs are another way of extending learning: offering endless possibilities for enrichment activities, inspiring personal growth, and fostering a culture of creativity and discovery.

Afterschool programs—as well as those held in summer—are well placed to deliver on the increased attention to STEM subjects by not only providing additional time to engage in science- and math-related topics, but also by doing so in a way that’s different from your typical school lessons; providing another opportunity for engagement. These programs can also be very effective in improving access to STEM fields and careers among populations that are currently greatly underrepresented–women, African Americans, and Hispanics—helped in part by the fact that African American and Hispanic children (according to Afterschool Alliance) participate in afterschool programs in greater numbers.

While many afterschool programs already engage children and youth in STEM—such as museums, universities, 4-H club and Girl Scouts—their role in supporting children’s STEM learning is only expected to grow in importance with the advent of the Common Core Standards for Mathematics and English Language Arts.

Where For Art You, Arts?

Students who have arts-rich experiences in school do better across-the-board academically, and they also become more active and engaged citizens, voting, volunteering and generally participating at higher rates than their peers.
—Rocco Landesman, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts

The opportunity to engage students through the arts becomes vulnerable as the school day becomes increasingly focused on reading and math. And limited budgets make it difficult for schools to provide a wide variety of arts programming. This is why arts education can andshould be part of any quality afterschool and summer program.

Studies such as the Dana Consortium’s “Learning, Arts and the Brain” have found that students who participate in arts programs show greater academic gains and receive better grades and higher standardized test scores compared to students who had very little involvement in the arts.

School’s In For Summer

So, in summery summary: children who don’t have access to summer learning programs are at risk of losing the academic, social and emotional gains they’ve made during the school year. And, just as afterschool programs have the potential to support student learning, so do summer learning programs. In many cases, the same folks who offer afterschool programs often offer similar, more extended programs for the summer. By increasing our investment in such learning programs, we can better ensure that all kids make the most of summer and start each school year better prepared to learn. So, this summer, just because school is out, that doesn’t mean it needs to be out forever (sorry Alice).